Calling China: Thanks for enduring toxic chemicals to make my cool new cell phone

GRN Reports:

Green America launched a campaign today to clean up the electronics industry (again), which it reports continues to expose laborers to toxic chemicals at its factories in China.

The campaign focuses on Apple, because it's a leader in the industry, and about half of its smart phones are made in China. But Green America and its partners in the campaign, China Labor Watch and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), report that many other smartphone makers also need to improve their safety practices.

"As a massive global company, Apple has the power to improve working conditions throughout the electronics-manufacturing sector by influencing both its suppliers (like Foxconn, Pegatron, Quanta, Primax) and its competitors. There are safer alternatives to the most dangerous chemicals available, and Apple can take the lead in using them," Green America explains on its FAQ about the new campaign, which it has dubbed "Bad Apple".

Apple is "highly profitable," the group notes in the understatement of the year, and could easily afford the $1 or so per phone that it would cost to eliminate the most dangerous chemicals in the iPhone supply chain.

Green America arrived at the $1 or less figure by talking with groups monitoring labor and environmental irregularities in the industry, said Green America campaign director Elizabeth O’Connell. That’s what they estimated it would cost to create a much healthier work environment for the mostly young, impoverished and overworked Chinese laborers churning out phones and other electronic devices.

These toxics are not harming the affluent end-users – at least not until the phones end up leaching crud into the local landfill, which may partly explain why after a spate of coverage a few years ago, the issue of electronics sweatshops has faded from the headlines.

But in China, where millions remain bent over tiny computer boards in hot, packed factories that supply Apple and other smartphone makers, the problems continue, the Green American campaign alleges.

Apple responded Wednesday with a statement that the company has worked to get toxics out of its products and manufacturing, and that it holds suppliers to US safety standards.

“Over the past decade, Apple has led the industry in removing toxics like lead and mercury, brominated flame retardants and PVC from our products, which is good for workers as well as consumers. When it comes to handling chemicals and toxic substances, we require that our suppliers around the world meet or exceed respected U.S. safety standards such as OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration], the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists,” said Chris Gaither, a spokesman with Apple Corporate Relations.

The statement continued, noting that Apple conducted 200 factory inspections related to hazardous chemicals last year and provides training in chemical management at a training center for Apple suppliers in China.

Green America’s campaigners, however, maintain that Apple, among other electronics makers, are still failing to protect workers, who endure long hours and get too little safety training.

A just-released documentary cited by electronics watchdog groups depicts workers suffering from leukemia, nerve damage and acute poisoning that they blame on exposures on the job.

The acute poisoning occurs regularly, on average, affecting one worker every five hours in the electronics sweatshops, according to the film, Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics, by Heather White and Lynn Zhang.

Benzene, which many Americans recognize as a byproduct of gas fracking, is blamed in the film for triggering leukemia and acute illness among electronics workers who use it to clean electronic components. Benzene is a known carcinogen that has been linked to leukemia by several studies including this meta-analysis.

Good Electronics, an industry watchdog, helped raise awareness about one benzene-poisoned electronics worker, Ming Kunpeng, who contracted leukemia several years ago and committed suicide in 2013 at age 27 after he was unable to get better treatment for his illness in Hong Kong. Ming had worked at tech company supplying the industry.

Another toxic, n-hexane is used in the industry for cleaning touch screens and is associated with nerve damage. This  2011 story explains how workers' illnesses were linked to n-hexane exposure when they were treated at local hospitals.

What you can do

The Green America campaign is not calling for a boycott of Apple. But they are asking the company's devoted fan base to express their concern that Apple (among others) is balancing its profits on the health of fellow humans. People can sign a petition and a form letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook  appealing for changes at its supplier factories.

The green business advocacy wants Apple to better monitor and test for toxic chemicals to assure that workers are shielded and receive proper medical treatment when they are exposed. The activists also would like the company to better disclose the chemicals it’s using during the manufacturing of its phones.

Kevin Slaten, a program coordinator at China Labor Watch in New York, suggested in a news conference Wednesday that Apple could improve safety by easing production demands on factories that encourage suppliers to short-change safety training.

Companies like Apple also could be more transparent by publishing more specifics in their CSR reports, Slaten said.

American consumers can help by extending the use of their devices, even having them repaired to reduce waste and pressure on the system, O’Connell said.

Green America suggests iFixit for repairs and Mobile Karma as a resource for finding used phones.

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